This month I decided to start a Chinese language tuition service specifically focused on tea vernacular. Given that so much tea-related scientific research is published in Chinese, I figured that many tea people could benefit from broadening their skill set to include speaking and reading Mandarin with a tea vernacular focus so that they can gain tea knowledge through first hand channels instead of second hand channels. Also, when travelling through China for the purpose of hunting down teas, interactions with tea people are so much more fulfilling when both parties can speak directly to each other rather than through a translator (and I've seen many translators leave out a lot of information when translating from Chinese to English).
My tuition service is best suited to tea shop owners, tea bloggers and general Chinese tea lovers at either the beginner or intermediate stage. If you are interested in having me as your tutor, head on over to the contact page and let me know before places fill up.
In the meantime, I thought I would share some tips in this post on remembering three of the six different names for classifying Chinese tea.
In Chinese, white tea is 白茶 (bái chá). It's pronounced close to "bye char", but more breathy on the end of "char". You get the breathiness by dropping your lower jaw towards the end.
The second tone is used on both characters, so each character should sound like you are asking a question.
How can you remember the actual characters? The character for white, bái, is a combination of the character for sun - 日- plus a stroke on top. The character looks like a two-panel window. Imagine looking out the window of the sun burning so brightly that you see a white light.
The character for tea, chá, is a bit more complicated. The top part - 艹 - represents the character for grass. Imagine the horizontal line is the soil and the two vertical little lines are the roots and grass leaf blades popping out above the soil. Imagine the next part - 人- is the roof of a teahouse. The last part underneath is similar to the Chinese character for tree - 木 - symbolising a tea tree. The character looks like branches on a single tree trunk. Altogether you have a tea tree growing in the grass by a teahouse - and there you have the character for tea.
Wū - 乌 - is the adjective for dark/black as well as the noun for crow. The character kinda looks like a bird - a crow - perched on a tree branch. Wū sounds like when a ghost goes “wooooh,” but it is in the first tone, which we at The Artisan Tea hut call the “stick out your tongue tone”. Imagine that steady singular tone you make when the doctor asks you to stick out your tongue and say “aaaah”. It kinda sounds like that.
Lóng - 龙 - means dragon. Chineasy has a picturefied version of this character to help you remember it. It is pronounced similar to the English word “long”, but you push your lips out further as you say it. It’s a second tone, which means, when you say it, you should go up in tone like you are asking a question.
So altogether oolong tea can be translated literally to “black dragon tea”. Why is it called this? Some say it is because the dark, long, winding look of typical oolong tea resembles a black dragon. Others say the birthplace of oolong tea - the Fujian province - has a local dialect in the area where “wulong” has the meaning of “混混叨叨” and “误打误撞”, which has the sentiment of bumbling along and happening upon something by accident - which reflects the accidental process discovery of turning green tea to oolong tea.
What we call black tea in the West is actually called red tea in China - 红茶 (hóng chá). It is pronounced pretty much as you see it, with the second tones making it sound like you are asking a question.
It is said that the name for black tea came about in the West because of the colour of the leaves, whereas, in China, it was called red tea because of the colour of the tea liquor. Of course, there are some Chinese red teas that retain the red colour in the leaves as well, such as Big Golden Needles pictured above.
How to remember the character for red - 红? The left part - 纟- means silk (which looks like silk thread). The right part - 工 - means work/labour (which looks like the shape of an industrial steel beam bar). Anyone who has handled Big Golden Needles knows that the fine hairs covering the shoots make them feel smooth like silk. So imagine someone working hard on making a red tea as smooth as silk.
About the Author
Jaq James is the Founder of The Artisan Tea Hut and is a Contributing Editor for Tea Journey Magazine. She splits her time between China's tea regions and Australia's capital.